This year’s edition of the Owls and Winter finches of Northern Minnesota was a great success! We had nine very enthusiastic and energetic participants ready to tackle the colds of Minnesota Winter. We arrived just in time to miss a polar vortex that brought temperatures down to the -40's. We all congregated in Minneapolis on the first night and made a plan for the week and get to know each other a little bit. It turns out a couple of the participants were old birding pals from decades ago and had lost touch! The weather forecast for the first couple days of the trip looked to be the best of the week so we wasted no time and jumped right into birding.
The first full day of birding was Saturday the 2nd. We started the morning early with temperature on the van thermometer reading 12 degrees. Our first stop was to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Bass Ponds Unit. This is a very birdy spot not too far from the airport that had some of the only open water that we would find the whole trip. As we got out of the van and walked down the hill towards the ponds, we were greeted with our first owl of the trip, a BARRED OWL. It sat nicely for some pictures and was a good sign of things to come. BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES and dozens of AMERICAN ROBINS lined the trees as we walked toward the ponds. The powerful single note of the HAIRY WOODPECKER rang out and then it presented itself for good looks. The coldest looking GREAT BLUE HERON was roosting in a tree near the trail. The bass ponds produced COMMON AND HOODED MERGANSERS along with a couple hundred MALLARDS. It was nice to see some open water and congregating ducks so close up. Our next stop was the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge. We had a brief, but good look at AMERICAN TREE SPARROW here. EASTERN BLUEBIRD, bright NORTHERN CARDINALS, and DARK-EYED JUNCO were the other highlights of the stop.
By now the day was warming a little and we decided to drive straight to Sax-Zim Bog. There were several reports of ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK along the interstate so we had a five mile stretch of parallel road staked out to exit the highway and scope for this target species. It turned out that we didn't need this excursion at all. As we were exiting the highway, we spied a large raptor perching in the very top of a tree. We pulled the van into the gas station right off the road and got great scope views of a nice adult ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK! We arrived in Sax-Zim Bog a little while later from the South through Meadowlands, a small birding friendly community. We had heard reports of a SNOWY OWL close by. Approaching the farm field, the bird was supposed to be in there were several other birders with scopes out and they were right on the nice adult male. It was a distant look at this very white bird. After watching the owl for a while perched on the ground we moved on to the Sax-Zim Bog visitor center for a needed bathroom break. We were immediately greeted with awesome views of PINE GROSBEAK, COMMON REDPOLL, and PINE SISKIN. By this time, we had quite a few of our target birds already! We headed towards Duluth for the night, but not before spotting a RUFFED GROUSE eating buds high up in a tree. It was a great way to end the day!
The next morning was an early one, although the weather was balmy for Minnesota. The low temperature for the day was 21 degrees and the high was 25. We started out before dark hoping to find the GREAT GRAY OWL. We slowly worked highway 7, the most reliable place for Great Gray in recent days. We spent about an hour with no luck and decided to try a different road. This decision was not in vain. What followed was about an hour of a perching GREAT GRAY OWL in the open on various exposed snags. It gave us the best looks of just about any bird on the trip; a true photographers dream. This majestic owl was so cooperative and special I witnessed a woman who was not in our party crying with delight. When it was finally time to move on, we next visited the famous Mary-Lou's feeders. What a treat. There was a large flock of EVENING GROSBEAKS over most of the feeders. These beautiful birds gave us fantastic looks. We also had a distant flock of WILD TURKEY, PINE GROSBEAK, and COMMON REDPOLL. The heated port-o-potty was a nice touch too. One last stop before lunch was a stakeout for the NORTHERN HAWK OWL. We had to walk in roughly half of a mile, but the bird was visible at the top of a small snag much before we got close to it. It was not very weary of visitors as it sat on its perch while we walked right under the tree it was sitting in. We headed to lunch after a fantastic morning. We ate at Wilburt's Cafe in Cotton and it was good to have a hot meal. Lunch gave way to birding the afternoon. We drove back to the Sax-Zim Bog visitor center while it was open so we could visit with the folks there. The carcass feeder in the back gave us a look at our first CANADA JAY of the trip. We moved on to spend the rest of the day looking for our other target species. We ended the day on another popular road in the bog, Admiral. We had great looks of the trips first NORTHERN SHRIKE. The popular feeders on Admiral road were very reliable for BOREAL CHICKADEE and they did not disappoint, we had three birds at the feeders. The last light of the day we spent looking for WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL AND BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER but we missed them on this day.
The next day was supposed to be coldest of our trip. A snow front came through dumping 3 inches of snow on the ground and a small amount of ice. The road conditions were not ideal, but we didn't let that stop our birding adventure. We started with 1 degree on the thermometer in the van. The Superior Wisconsin landfill was our first stop, to try for gulls. The visibility was poor, but we managed looks at HERRING and GLAUCOUS GULLS. There were also a fair amount of COMMON RAVENS harassing the gulls at the landfill. We moved back into Minnesota to head up the coast and stopped at the popular Brighton Beach Park. The birding was a little slow at the park on this cold day, but the ice was awesome. It was glacial blue and smashed right up against the shoreline. It was bad for ducks, but good for pictures! moving up the Superior coastline we stopped at Two Harbors to check out lighthouse point. The wind picked up and we estimated the cold to be negative twenty degrees. Surprisingly there was some open water and we observed at least 175 LONG-TAILED DUCKS and a single RED-BREASTED MERGANSER. The lighthouse walk out on the jetty was completely frozen, but a few of us hearty(crazy?) folks walked most of the way out to try to get closer views of the ducks. This was the coldest point of the trip for me. Safely back in the van we searched town for BOHEMIAN WAXWING that have been known to frequent Two Harbors, but no luck. We moved off out of town to Homestead Road to check for the Waxwings, but no luck here either. Light was fading for the day and we decided to head back down to Superior to try for the SNOWY OWLS that had been reported there the previous day. Upon arrival at the Richard I Bong Airport we had an immature female SNOWY OWL perched on a light post on Tower Avenue. We watched this bird for about an hour as she perched and even swooped down and grabbed a vole and devoured it right in front of us. It was our National Geographic moment for the day, and a great way to end a cold windy day.
Cold weather followed us into our final day with the low on the van thermometer reading negative eight. We were headed back into Sax-Zim Bog for the day to try round up some of the species we had missed so far on the trip. Our first target of the day was the SHARP-TAILED GROUSE. We went to the known lek in the bog and waited for the birds to arrive. A half hour went by and no grouse. We gave it four more minutes and after two, eight grouse flew in and started grazing under the feeders and chasing each other around. We still had several birds on our want list to get and spent the rest of the day trying to get them. The middle of the day was relatively slow and we chased a few birds without success. We went to Admiral road to round out the day and decided to split the group and walk the road. It paid off when two WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS flew in with a small flock of COMMON REDPOLLS. The crossbills perched up for a couple minutes and let us all have great views. The light was waning so we tried to see the NORTHERN HAWK OWL again on the next road over. We missed the owl, but at the very last light had a small flock of BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS give us brief but diagnostic looks. Driving home that night we decided that we would make one last trip to the bog in the morning to try for BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER. This was a species we didn't want to miss. The morning's thermometer had seven degrees which was one degree shy of the high for the previous day. We had a lot of driving to do today to do what we wanted to do. After an unsuccessful trip to the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog for the BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER I could tell that there was some skepticism that we would see the bird. We split up again and half of us went in first. there was a very cooperative BOREAL CHICKADEE coming to a feeder just feet away from our heads! The first group of folks in the boardwalk headed past the end of the boardwalk off to the deeper snow. The second group came in and had a woodpecker in binoculars that ended up being a HAIRY WOODPECKER. A few minutes later we all heard WOODPECKER!! and looked up and there was a female BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER tapping away at a Black Spruce. A fabulous sight! We slowly walked out of the boardwalk and everyone was in good spirits. Snow angels were made, jokes were told, and smiles were captured by photos! To cap off the morning a PILEATED WOODPECKER flew over to give one person in our group the look she needed to add it to her life list. We turned South from here to head to the airport for our departures. We were all riding high from the sighting of the BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER, which was a life bird for all but one of us.
This trip was grand.
The people, the birds, and even the weather seemed to complement each other to perfection. We ended the trip with fifty-two (52) species, a lot of great memories, and ninety-four (94) combined life birds. I cannot wait to put those hand warmers in again next year!